"There was some concern among hockey higher-ups as to whether I could do the job, maybe because I don't have any gray hair," Green says. "Well, you don't see the gray hairs because I pull them out every morning." And while hard-liners wondered out loud if the baby-faced Green could tie his own shoes, he led the Capitals to their best record (27-40-13).
"It's definite we will make the playoffs this year," says Palmateer. He has the air of one who's been over this ground before. "The addition of a few veterans like Bob Kelly and Jean Pronovost gives us some balance." But the key to Washington's balance will be Palmateer himself.
Once the darling of Maple Leaf Gardens, Palmateer ran into contract problems a year ago, then suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks. The Toronto brass thought he was faking it and said so, which only added to his displeasure with the team.
In Washington, Palmateer, a bachelor, claims to relish the fact that he can wander around without being pestered for autographs. With his riot of buff ringlets, his patched jeans and a snazzy Mazda, the 5'9", 170-pound Palmateer could pass for a college kid cutting classes. "Mike will enjoy the privacy for a while," McNab predicts. "A player has to make his own fans, in his own good time."
If any man was ever destined to make instant fans, though, Palmateer might be the one. His goaltending style, which Green calls "different" and McNab terms "heart-stopping," is bound to keep habitu�s of the Centre watching to see what he does next. "You look at him out there, flipping and flopping and doing those rollovers and crazy things, and you say, 'How can he do that? He'll hurt himself,' " says Center and Team Captain Ryan Walter. "But he's quick, so quick that if you blink, you miss a few saves."
Unlike most goaltenders, whose repertoire of moves is limited to kick-save, drop down, come out to cut down the angle, Palmateer's would fill three legal pads. If his saves had names, they'd be called Outfielder, Student Body Right, Sky Diver, Nadia and Niatross. Seeing Palmateer weather a flurry of shots is a regular sideshow attraction. "He wriggles and he writhes, he twists and springs!" Against Winnipeg, Palmateer lost his stick after a foray to the blue line, and seconds later he made a bare-glove save. Hardly your everyday hockey move.
In fact, Palmateer often tosses his stick aside in practice, fending off pucks with only hands and legs. "Partly, I do that stuff to stay loose," he says. "O.K., I admit it. I don't kill myself in practice. To me a practice is maybe four or six ouches. Over a season, those ouches add up. Games are another story. That's real hockey."
Palmateer's philosophy of goaltending is that the whole process is mental. "When I'm making the unbelievable saves, or when I'm getting bombed by pucks and stopping them, that keeps my mind in position," he says. "It's a high. But if I play 50 games this season, the odds are I'll have half a dozen off-nights. Then someone will say, 'Oh, you can't win them all.' I'd like to know why not. I've got to constantly tell myself that no matter how many pucks got by me, no more will."
Palmateer's freewheeling style, in and out of the net, stems from his early hockey experience. Until he was 17 he played goalie in one league and forward in another, which afforded him an unusual view of the game. "I can see plays unfolding," he says. "And I try to quarterback, too." He also tries to be Wayne Gretzky in slo-mo during pregame skates, stickhandling and shooting as he swaggers around the ice. And with his shooter's background, Palmateer finds himself involved with the flow of play instead of just backstopping it. "I like to think opposing players don't quite know how to deal with me," he says.
Palmateer missed a shutout in his debut when a low, hard shot beat him with 2:12 left in the game. But afterward, Mr. Popcorn wasn't sweating over it. "Yeah, it was a fast one. I clocked it at 119 mph," he said. "But I didn't watch the replay. Why depress myself?" Palmateer paused, then added, "No goalie ever played a perfect game. It's too easy to make little mistakes. You can try to play the game to perfection, but too many times what you've really got to do is learn to save yourself." Meaning, of course, to establish a pace that leaves a store of energy for the tougher obstacles down the road. Like postseason play.